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Trapeze Harnesses – Critical Design Points

Posted by Tom Benedict on 12/05/2012

In an earlier post I mentioned my wife and I are rigging our P-Cat with trapeze wires. One of my favorite things to do with our Prindle was to sail on a nice fast reach, hiked out, just barely flying the windward hull. I could go for hours like that. I’m also pretty sure I laughed like a maniac the whole time. Yes, it’s just that much fun. Think about it: For a guy who likes to lift cameras with kites, what’s more exciting than lifting myself and my boat with what amounts to a really big kite? Blow, wind blow, so I can git up ‘n GO! YEEEEHAAA!!!

Ok, getting ahead of myself. Writing, not sailing…

Aaanyway, the more we looked at our new (old) boat, the more we wanted to hike and fly, just like we did on our Prindle. So we went through the whole song and dance of getting all the rigging for trapeze wires. Then we got down to the matter of picking harnesses.

Our Prindle came with two lace-up full body harnesses. I HATED THEM! When you’re hiked out, all your body weight is being suspended from a hook positioned right in front of your navel. With a lace-up, the bulk of that weight is being distributed around your hips. TIGHT around your hips. After an hour in the harness, it felt like my femurs were being embedded in my pelvis with a hydraulic press! As soon as I could afford one, I got a new harness.

The new one was a full-body rig from Murray’s. (Ok, so I got it from The Sailboat Shop in Austin, but it was a Murray’s harness.) Rather than lacing, it had adjustable nylon straps. To climb out of the harness you popped three quick release buckles and shucked it off. To get back in you stuck your legs through the loops, pulled it up, and clipped the three buckles shut. No worries. You adjusted it once and you were good to go.

But the best part was the spreader bar. The hook was welded to a 9″ bar that suspended your weight from your butt rather than from your pelvic bones. No more crushed hips! I loved it. My butt provided plenty of padding, and even after hours on the wire I felt like I could keep going. And going. And going!

But then we moved to Hawaii and the Prindle stayed behind. My Murray’s harness stayed behind, too. Yeah, there’s some irony to be had here. We moved from Central Texas to an island in the middle of the ocean. The movers packed everything (and I do mean everything! They even wrapped up one of my trash cans with the trash still in it!) One of the few things we left behind was our boat. Go figure.

That was about fifteen years ago. I was in my twenties. I was young, dumb, and relatively invincible. These days I’m middle aged, just as dumb, and utterly mortal. I have chronic back issues. My biggest fear, hiking out on a wire, is that my back will go out and my family will have to haul me in like a big bloated fish on a hook. I can already imagine myself flopping around on deck making “Garg garg garg!” noises as the kids poke at me with sticks, daring each other to be the first to sit on me. Unmitigated hell. Or typical parenthood. Same difference, some times.

So when I went shopping for a harness, I wanted to find one with some real back support. Lo and behold, there were a bunch of harnesses that offered full back support! Ok, so some of them were an utter joke. But some took the job seriously. A number of them included battens (think of corset stays made out of thick fiberglass, stitched into the garment with thick nylon webbing.) More than one also included a hard shell for the lumbar region of the spine. HOT DAWG! I made my list, checked them twice, and narrowed it down to two models I was interested in.

I showed what I found to Rydra, figuring she’d respond with a “HOT DAWG!” of her own. To my utter confusion she stared at both of them and shook her head. “But what’s not to like? They have spreader bars! They have lower back support! I could hike for hours on these things!” She looked at them again, pointed to the shoulder straps, and said, “There’s no way that’s fitting around my chest.” I gave them a second look. Sure enough, whoever designed these was either a man, a misogynist, or both. I put myself in her shirt, so to speak, and winced. Hours in that rig would be sheer torture.

She finally found a harness that would work. Among other things, it had adjustable straps that positioned the shoulder straps outboard of the torso. (I almost pointed at them and said, “Look! Barberhaulers!” but I held my tongue. Rydra has a good sense of humor, but I know how far I can push before I earn a good  smacking.) I considered getting the same model, but it offered no back support. Instead the design necked down just above the waist so the torso and hips moved as separate units. The list of features proudly stated this harness offered “more mobility than other harnesses!” More mobility? Yeah, for someone without a bad back. Me? That’s a trip to a hospital just waiting to happen.

In the end I settled on the Ronstan Racing Harness, and Rydra chose a Gill Spreader Bar Harness. Two completely different trapeze harnesses based on completely different critical design points.  It just goes to show that there really is no one perfect design. Not even for something as straightforward as how you’d hook a wire to your belly button. Go figure.

– Tom

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